Essential writing skills: how to make words your servants

Half the battle for writers is making writing their servant – not being a servant to the words. It’s a lesson novice writers usually only discover after they’re about half way through the first book and are finding the words mastering them, not the other way around.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

I re-pitched my history of New Zealand for its second edition, altering the tone to bring the writing up to date.

It has to be addressed. And there is, alas, only one way to do that. That’s right – practise. But that shouldn’t be a chore – writing’s fun, right?

Once you’ve made words your servant – and your friend – you can start paying attention to the equally crucial matters of content, tone and style – together, what we might call ‘voice’. This isn’t something that just happens; it can be directed and controlled, just like any other aspect of writing. Take George McDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a novel about the bully from Tom Brown’s Schooldays, grown up and turned Victorian-age military hero. Fraser presented it as a ‘found memoir’ – which it wasn’t – but buoyed the conceit with such a subtle ‘1840’ period tone to his words that at least one reviewer was taken in.

It works in non-fiction, too. Recently I re-wrote one of my earlier books, a kids’ book pitched for 8 year olds, into a young adult-and-older account pitched for the 12+ bracket. It had to be completely re-written to do so – with full attention to the language, content and tone. I also re-pitched my history of New Zealand, when it came around to the second edition, to modernise the writing.

The trick to achieving that  control – something superficially easy to do but very hard to actually master. It takes a long time for writers to be able to consciously control the tone. But it’s an essential writing skill, and one that improves with practise. My tips? Try this:

1. Pick a passage by (say) your favourite author. What defines the tone? Look through a passage for key words – terms that give flavour. Check the pacing, the ‘beats’. Look for sentence length and paragraphing. Is it present or past tense? Examine the material closely and make notes.

2. Now try writing a passage at least 750 words long, of your own, in the same style, with the same cadence, word selection and rhythms.

3. Didn’t work? Of course not, it won’t the first time. But this is an exercise…and you know what exercises mean. Yup – do it again.

4. And again.

5. And again (etc).

It’s the only way. Did I mention you then throw the exercises away? Words are not precious babies, still less numeric targets. They’re tools, and they’re disposable. You can always write more.

The point is that when you’ve mastered tone, you’re more than half way to controlling voice, content and style. Writing will be your servant. Not the other way around. And there’s one other benefit that comes out of doing all this. With the quality comes that most precious of all skills that writers can have – speed.

Do you deliberately throw away ‘practise writing’? How do you extend yourself when writing?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: using weather to create a mood

Long-time readers of this blog know that I am something of a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien. A lot of a fan, actually. And the more I look at what he wrote, the more impressed I get.

The Lewis River - very Tolkienish view with wonderful blue skies.

The Lewis River – very Tolkienish view but with wonderful blue skies. Click to enlarge.

Take his settings. More often than not, and especially in The Lord Of The Rings, he’s telling us about the weather – which, usually, is gloomy. It rains a lot in Middle Earth.

Peter Jackson’s version – set in bright New Zealand sunshine against our sparkling landscapes – didn’t actually capture what Tolkien was describing in that sense. If you read the details in the text you find that many scenes in both The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit are set against wild weather; gloomy clouds, rain, even storms. Virtually the whole of The Return Of The King was played out under the darkness of Mount Doom.

Tolkien used the sun as a counterpoint – deliberately played to create the mood, as when the hobbits left the home of Tom Bombadil after several days socked in by rain and jogged fearlessly across the Barrow Downs. Doom followed when the weather closed in.

Not really Mordor - this is a photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau, near Westport in the South Island of New Zealand.

OK, well this looks like Gorgoroth, except for the blue skies (again). Photo I took of the open cast coal mine on the Stockton Plateau. Click to enlarge.

Quite a lot of the inspiration for it, I suspect, came from Tolkien’s experiences in France during the First World War. It rained a lot over the trenches. Weather over Europe in 1915-17 was unusually wet in any event. But there is some evidence that the concussion of artillery bombardment – which sent shock waves hammering into the air – was enough to trigger looming clouds to drop their rain early, so it was even wetter over the battlefields than it might otherwise have been.

The relentless rain created a mood of gloom among the men, a darkness to befit the dark world into which they had been plunged. It is this mood that Tolkien evoked in much of The Lord Of The Rings which was closely based – in detail – on trench life and the environment of the Western Front. Tolkien did all this quite deliberately, of course, to create a mood, a sense of darkness, a sense of oppression to befit the epic canvas of his stories.

And he was, I think, perhaps also well aware of the sense of comfort felt by a reader who could comfortably snuggle before a roaring fire on a cold and dark winter’s afternoon, enjoying his words while the wild weather raged outside.

Do you write fiction? And if you do, do you use the weather to create mood?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Control your writing inspiration with hidden thinking

I had an idea for a story the other day. Came in like a thunderbolt, fully formed.

It's a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really...

Seeing oneself distorted in a dream? It’s a self-portrait, in a deco hubcab. No really…

After a while I figured it wouldn’t quite work that way, but it was a start. And that begs a question. Where did the idea come from? I wasn’t thinking about writing a story, or even idly contemplating plot ideas – the last little while I’ve been fully occupied with non-fiction projects.

But that’s how the best ideas usually arrive. Isaac Newton, for instance, was resting under a hedge one day when a new mathematical principle suddenly occurred to him. He called it ‘fluxions’, though today we know it as calculus (and Gottfried Liebniz, who’d had exactly the same idea, was very annoyed).

The reality is that our minds are always hard at work behind the scenes. It’s a more complex process than usually allowed, and I figure a fair number of ideas come to nothing – we forget them, or they don’t emerge other than in dreams. They’re random. Like the idea that hit me. Yet we CAN control it consciously. Instead of letting inspiration ‘float in’ randomly, try this. It’s VERY important to do this with pen and paper. What you’re thinking may not be able to be represented in words at this stage. That’s fine. Draw a picture, a diagram – whatever best works for you to express yourself.

1. Write down the end point. Starting with the end point is the sharpest way to focus direction. It has to be an emotional outcome for you, and for your reader. But don’t try to figure out the journey there…yet.
2. Write down any ideas, thoughts, concepts you already have. Snapshots of scenes? Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be a specific project.
3. Work on these ideas a bit – refine them, see if they organise into patterns. Write them down again.
4. Take a fresh sheet of paper and copy the notes you’ve made, clean,  and manually copy the latest version. This manual copying is VERY important.
5. Now stick the clean copy in a drawer. And forget about it.
6. Go and do something totally different. Fishing, for instance.

What this does is set up relationships between ideas in your mind. The act of writing (or drawing) by hand and manually copying is vital because it involves so many different activities – reading, motor skills, memory, and thinking about the content. The aim is to get ideas moving & mixing ‘behind the scenes’. You might need to re-visit that piece of paper in a couple of weeks, re-read it – and maybe something will ‘click’. Or you could get an idea that mixes with what you’ve written – something totally left-field. That’s good too.

Does this work for you? Do you have a method of your own for triggering inspiration?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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How to win with writing’s digital revolution

There’s no question that the digital revolution has hit writing.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them).

Publishers are in a spin as traditional print-publishing – with its marketing and distribution model – falls away in the face of e-books and print on demand. A lot’s been driven by economic downturn. As discretionary spending falls away, people cut luxuries. But digital’s cheap. E-readers easily justify their cost.

To me the issue tells us a lot about how we think. It would be easy to  declare the death of print books. We’re conditioned to think that way as a result of Victorian-age progressivism, which framed our mind-set 200 years ago and hasn’t much shifted. You know the idea – the old replaces the new because it’s inevitable. The new out-competes, it’s natural, etc etc. Personally I blame Herbert Spencer, though realistically he was as much symptom as cause, back in the 1850s. We’ve been further conditioned by the way  ‘new models’ are sold on ‘superiority’ – actually a device to maintain sales, invented by car makers nearly a century ago when innovations became incremental. It’s so much a part of the commercial world that we don’t question it now. Of course the new is superior. Get with the programme!

The fact is that even biology doesn’t work that way, still less human social constructs, which is what we’re talking about when trying to predict the take-up of new technologies that’ll affect our lifestyles and habits. And yet we get puzzled when the future doesn’t happen as we imagine. What went wrong? Maybe it’s still coming. Er – er -

When trying to sort out the problem, we don’t ask the right questions – investigation usually pivots on why the original assumption that X will automatically replace Y didn’t happen. In fact, we have to ask questions based on different assumptions – such as ‘how has the new been received by society?’ We are looking at an interface, don’t forget, between capability and people. And people don’t behave in the shallow, automatic way imagined by nineteenth century observers who were wrestling to understand unprecedented social change.

Let me put it this way. Remember going out to the cinema? Killed in the 1950s by TV. Remember cash? Stone dead in the face of plastic cards.

I took this just before the premier of the Hobbit movie in 2012.

TV killed going out to the movies stone dead…didn’t it? This is the Embassy in Wellington, dressed for the premier of the first Hobbit movie in 2012.

Yeah, you get the picture. Plastic cards killed cheques; and certainly in New Zealand, usage of both cards AND cash have been climbing. If one was replacing the other, we’d expect cash to fall as cards rose. It isn’t. And less than 50 km from where I live, some guy named James Cameron has just arrived to stay, looking to spend several billion on – wait for it – movies that people will go to the cinema to see.

In all cases the new has taken its place alongside the old – which, itself, has adapted and changed. In many ways the new tech acts to improve the penetration of the whole medium into society. And that’s true of the publishing revolution. E-books have replaced ‘airport paperbacks’. But it isn’t either-or. It’s  ‘together’, as recent studies show. This one, for instance.  Or this one.

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Click to buy e-book from Amazon

Conceptually, we’re looking at complementary channels of communication; and we need to develop a mind-set that says ‘publishing’ means ‘publishing by any medium’. I can envisage buyers wanting to enjoy print but still buy an e-edition to have convenience on the move. Or an e-edition might offer additional content.

Publishers and authors alike need to be innovative, nimble, and open to change.

Curiously, I’ve got an example right now. Even a year or two ago, I’d supposed that large-scale books, such as my Illustrated History of New Zealand, might not be amenable to e-treatment. But they are. It’s out in e-format as well as print. Which I think is tres cool.

Welcome to the future.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Essential writing skills: three steps to capturing your readers

Want to know how to capture your readers? Writing’s all about emotion – about the author transferring their own emotions to the page, and perhaps creating new emotions in the reader. It can be exhausting. As Hemingway once said, you sit down at the typewriter and bleed.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Ernest Hemingway (left) and Carlos Guiterrez, 1934. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The funny thing is, it’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction. Non-fiction also takes readers on an emotional journey – at basic level, the satisfaction of having information. But more usually non-fiction involves an argument, a pathway – and it is here that the emotion emerges. As Charles Darwin discovered, way back when.

Actually doing it, of course, is the trick:

1. Capture. The first task is to engage the reader at that emotional level. This is done by hook-lines and promises – the promise of that emotional journey and satisfaction. This doesn’t mean writing advertising slogans, but it does mean calling to the reader at a level other than that of the literal content. Readers are captured not by that literal content, but by the promise of what that content will do for them – how they will feel when reading it.

2. Hold. Next step – deliver on that promise. Keep the reader’s interest. One way to do that is to make small promises of emotional return along the way.

3. Punch. It’s not enough to carry the reader on an emotional journey – it has to be memorable. And the way to deal with that is to deliver a punch. This can be a multiple punch – giving the reader a series of little hitsies through the work, before finally delivering the KO at the end. It can be sharp – think of the way short story writers put a twist into the last sentence. Or it can be paced to suit the work. Think of the last chapter in Hemingway’s Farewell To Arms.

Ultimately the question writers have to ask, as they finish each sentence, is ‘what does this deliver to the reader? How will it make the reader feel?’

Where – in short – is the emotional journey?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Essential writing skills: harsh sentences for authors

I posted the other week on the importance of getting the rhythm right when writing sentences. And on the incompetence of my high school English teacher, but that’s another matter.

Party time in Napier's main 'art deco' precinct, February 2014.

Rhythm’s important to writing – as important as music. Jazz, for instance (this being a jazz type picture).

Getting the rhythm right when you write is part of the essential framework of writing – it lends interest. You can draw the reader, sometimes, by rhythm alone. It applies, of course, to every part of writing – words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs and so on.

The other part of making sentences work is in the content, which is largely a matter of structure. In strict grammatical terms a sentence is a single idea, but it can often be broken up into clauses and sub-clauses.

In non-fiction, particularly – but also, sometimes, fiction – I often discover very long sentences, sometimes embodying more than one idea. They run on (this is a technical term). The reason is that the author hasn’t properly organised their thoughts. It gets egregious when the subject and predicative (‘what’ and ‘what happens’) parts are divided by long qualifying clauses. This can really obstruct meaning. ‘The queen, while sitting at dinner and feeling extremely hungry, but whose crown was extremely heavy and had fallen over her nose, told the king to pass the salt.’ Ouch.

The trick is to make sure the subject (what the sentence is about) and the predicative (what happens to the subject) are adjacent.  Sometimes a long sentence is better written as two or three short ones. In both fiction and non-fiction, it’s also useful to organise the ideas in each sentence – to get the order so the sentence leads the reader on a journey.

All this may sound like Writing 101, but it’s amazing how easily writers can get carried into their work. Familiarity breeds contempt – quickly. Yes, writers have to write for themselves first and foremost – but the reader has to be thought about too. One way to test that is to put the work in a metaphorical drawer for a couple of weeks and then re-read it. Does it hold your interest? If it doesn’t, then it probably won’t capture readers either.

The biggest challenge when writing – and one of the causes of long convoluted sentences – is the fact that we think in simultaneous concepts, but writing is linear – a single idea thread. The knack for writers when assembling sentences – and, for that matter, any writing – is to understand the issue and be able to disentangle that simultaneity.

It’s a question, in short, of understanding how people think.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014 

 

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